Undergrounding: Longboat Commission masters the art of clumsy defeat

Editor & Publisher

While the Town Commission showed up last week to vote on the final resolution that was necessary to underground the neighborhoods of Longboat Key, just the opposite happened. There was no resolution whatsoever.  It was D-day – disillusion, dissolution and delusion.

Some of the Commissioners had the conviction to show little to no conviction. They cowered because an attorney brought financially self-serving arguments in a last ditch attempt to lower the cost for a handful of property owners.

Other commissioners who wanted a different approach to undergrounding used the legal skirmish to hop in their tanks and use the opportunity to plough into the legal holes the attorney opened.

And still others went down the path of let’s punt the problem down the road. Let’s ask our Town Manager to visit what has been visited more times than Yosemite as if he will have his 300th aha moment.


Through the past darkly

The Commission spent the past two years developing a methodology that was passed and approved by voters for Gulf of Mexico Drive to underground utilities. It uses calculated benefits to determine the cost to each property owner.

Many residents fought the proposal. The Commission held fast and the issue went to a vote and the community affirmed the project. The Town then approved the bond resolutions.

Realize that one resident challenged the Town and accused the Town of taking down information on the cost to property owners from the Town Website and argued that that affected the vote and the decision making of residents. The Town fought back and threatened to recover attorney fees saying the challenge was capricious and lacked merit.


When “Yes” means “No”

Next, the Town moved forward using the same methodology and asked voters in March if they would support assuming an additional round of debt to pay for undergrounding all of the neighborhoods. More than 2,000 voters, a majority, said, “Yes.”

Prior to the vote, there was a constant fight from many Villagers and many north-Key owners who argued they were paying thousands for the project yet those at Bay Isles were paying far less because they were already undergrounded. They argued that those in Bay Isles amounted to the majority of voters and that meant the majority paying the least voted to put the minority paying the most in debt.

Commissioner Phil Younger agreed with this principal and felt the way the town was going was not fair and he consistently voted against the way his fellow Commissioners were going about the process.

Then there was the case of Commissioner Jack Daly. He lives in Club Longboat and on about a half dozen occasions he used the dais to argue that his condo could bury a power line that leads to a maintenance building for about $25,000 and that would lower the assessments for all of his neighbors and the Town should allow an opportunity for the condo and others in similar situation to self-bury cables if they could before the Town undertook its project.


Burying integrity

But the Commission stood strong. I say that not because the majority did not listen to Younger and Daly, but because in the case of Daly and other groups who said they could possibly modify there property and avoid some of the cost, the Town took the position that if the matter was going to voters in march, the voters deserved to have the knowledge of what they would be paying and what everyone else would be paying in this community project. In short, they asserted that the integrity of the vote was predicated on just that — a knowledge of what it would cost and who would be paying what. They again put these amounts on the Town website.

The Commission also agreed there needed to be a cut-off date and that property owners could not scramble to undertake self-burying of cable lines in an attempt to avoid an assessment past an adopted May 9 snapshot date. The Commission also put the issue to the voters in March. As said, it passed.  And when it passed the Commission adopted a cut off date of May 9. The Commission decided that the state of the property on that date would constitute the cost.


When an attorney enters; accommodate

But when attorneys enter, what inevitably is born is a twisted and convoluted miscarriage of a policy and intent. This past week was the final act.

The majority of Longboaters wanted the undergrounding. All that was left was for the Town to reflect the vote in passing its bond referendum language and adopting the resolution.

But no; instead an attorney representing a resident at where else but Club Longboat argued against the legality of the method. He accused the date of the cut off for a property change was arbitrary. He argued that the Town’s methodology for calculating the benefits was arbitrary and flawed. He did what all attorneys strong and weak, young and old do — waive the specter of a challenge unless their client can be accommodated.  And the Commission showed its ability to accommodate the attorney.


Irony of ironies

Now what is most special is the attorney in this case is Robert Lincoln. The last time Lincoln took on the Commission was when he represented the Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC) and he fought the Town’s approval of the expansion of the Longboat Key Club.

Back then, the Town sided with Loeb Partners Realty, which then owned the Club, and fought against the hundreds and hundreds of Longboat residents and taxpayers who were represent by Lincoln and IPOC.

The Town bent, twisted and contorted its codes and land use laws and misread its Comprehensive Plan all in an attempt to give Loeb an approval. That approval was fought for years by Lincoln and Mike Furen of Icard Merrill and in the end the Sarasota Circuit Court sided with Lincoln and overturned the approval and neutered the Town’s development codes and instructed the Town to fix and follow its rules.

The Longboat Key Commission’s obstinacy against IPOC, a resident group, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.


Lincoln assassinates Town

So now we have a complete reversal. But this time Lincoln is making passionate arguments that on their face are self-serving in the financial interests of his client and Club Longboat owners.

In fact, the Commission is not listening to the desire of voters to move forward with the undergrounding and if you follow the arguments the whole plan to underground the neighborhoods is on course to deconstruct.

Lincoln is raising issues that were already raised, discussed and put to bed. It is his presence — the presence of an attorney — that is new. But whereas the previous Commission got it wrong in fighting Lincoln and residents, now this Commission is getting it wrong in running scared and going against the integrity of a public vote.

This is far far different. If the Commission had adopted the resolution and moved ahead with undergrounding, the entire matter goes to a circuit court anyway where a judge “validates” the bond methodology. That means the only remedy after that is an appeal to the State Supreme Court in which Lincoln would have to prove the Circuit Court judge misapplied law. That threshold is high and if the Town, its bond counsel and its Town attorney got it wrong, the risk and cost is low. Essentially they would be right where they are today.

But that would not have happened. The reality is the bonds would have been validated and there would have been no challenge to the Supreme Court. The numbers are not high enough to substantiate such an action and the fact is the Town’s method is neither arbitrary nor capricious.


A Crass Menagerie

Let’s face it. If you underground with ad valorum taxes it would be highly unfair to some and others would come out ahead.  The other option is the one we were doing.  It was an attempt to find an objective way that has been tested and used in other communities to pay for a project that has a varying benefit for everybody,

Is it fair? Is it perfect? No and No.

Still, the voters of Longboat Key wanted to see their neighborhoods undergrounded. This was their chance.

It looked as if the Commissioners were carrying the football for the community across the line and victory was at hand.

Instead, that football was deflated in one single meeting by the prick of an attorney. The fans of undergrounding have gone home dismayed and dejected and are losing their will to cheer the Town on.

The irony is this Commission still thinks they are in the game.


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2 Responses for “Undergrounding: Longboat Commission masters the art of clumsy defeat”

  1. ghostrider says:

    Mr Jaleski

    Hopefully there is more than one person who wishes to thank you for your post of nearly two months. ago.

    Thank you.

  2. Gene Jaleski says:

    The voters were lied to by the commissioner for the sole purpose of fooling the voters into voting for the most expensive method of undergrounding. The editor contends that ad valorem funding would have been inequitable. He fails to understand that ad valorem would have been less costly for those already undergrounded, than the idiotic non-ad valorem scheme devised by the town manager’s two man consulting firm. The proposed funding will in fact cost property owners $60 million more, including interest, than an ad valorem bond.

    The town manager is ultimately responsible for being the commissioners a virtual one man shop to design a very complex plan. Both have failed, leaving behind what may be a very costly defeat for the town. What the commissioners did was reprehensible. They first removed vital neighborhood assessment information from public view prior to the first election. Had people been able to see what wold happen if they voted for the first referendum, many would have voted NO. Then they changed the rules after the first referendum was passed under false circumstances. The commission rigged the election to include already undergrounded voters with those facing huge assessments. How unfair! They did this after telling voters, prior to the first referendum, that only neighborhoods would be allowed to vote in the second referendum election. Of course once they realized that the second referendum would fail, and did fail, in the neighborhoods, they had to bring in disinterested voters to win. Talk about voter fraud.

    This two year ordeal is the low point of governance on the island.

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